The Founder of Miss Jessie's Got Retail Placement by Asking a Stock Boy for Intel
In the Women Entrepreneur series My First Moves, we talk to founders about that pivotal moment when they decided to turn their business idea into a reality—and the first steps they took to make it happen.
Miko Branch started working as a hairstylist for two reasons: She loved hair, and she knew she could be her own boss in the industry. When a string of entrepreneurial successes, failures and misfires ultimately led her to focus on serving women with curly hair -- primarily African American women who, like Branch, wanted to wear their hair naturally -- she found a lucrative niche. Along with her sister, she started experimenting and creating a product line for curly hair, one that could support the very cut she'd popularized. Today, those kitchen experiments have grown into Miss Jessie’s, a multi-million dollar product line sold in retailers across the country. Branch breaks down her start and details how life’s necessities -- paying the mortgage and keeping her son happy and healthy -- drove her toward success.
1. Don’t let missteps and failure stop you.
Miss Jessie’s isn’t Branch’s first experience as an entrepreneur. Decades ago, she and her sister and father ran a cleaning business which was fairly successful but didn’t keep Branch satisfied. “I was actually scrubbing toilets,” she says. “It became very clear that I needed to do something I loved. Being your own boss isn’t fulfilling if you’re doing something you dislike.” She eventually went to hair school and opened her first salon with her sister. “It was a two-chair salon in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, and we experienced failure within two years.” In hindsight, she sees that they expanded too quickly, without the clientele to support moving and growing the business. But they tried again: The sisters, along with Branch’s newborn baby, moved into a brownstone in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn and opened a new salon on the ground floor.
2. Find (and commit to) a niche.
Branch had long kept her own hair styled straight, but it would get splashed with water every time she bathed her son, so she decided to let it go natural. “I just couldn’t keep it straight -- I was a single parent, doing hair out of the house. I didn’t have time for my own blowouts.” But her customers loved her new, natural hair, and she saw an opportunity. “There wasn’t a marketplace to support curly hair, especially curly hair with a tighter coil, also known as a kink,” Branch says. “I knew I could become an expert -- and I needed to, because the mortgage was due and my son needed milk!” She threw herself at her new mission, and even stopped offering relaxing services. “It was a bold move, because we needed money, but we knew this was an opportunity.” She developed a technique to cut and style curly hair, and before she knew it, women from far outside her Bed-Stuy neighborhood were traveling to the salon. “In 1999, Bed-Stuy was the hood,” Branch says. “But we had all these women -- Jewish, Italian, Latina -- with curly hair coming to us.”
3. Develop new revenue streams.
Branch and her sister couldn’t find styling products to support the haircuts they were offering, so they started experimenting. “We started adding stuff to store-bought products, then eventually developed our own,” she says. “We realized we could do whatever we want: make it smell fruity and yummy, design the packaging, give it a name!” They named their homemade product line Miss Jessie’s, after their paternal grandmother, who was a legendary cook -- something that inspired the playful names they gave each creation. “We made the brand food-themed: curly butter, curly pudding, curly meringue,” Branch says of what ended up being a trend-setting move. “Now, you’re not a player in this industry if you don’t name your curly-hair product after food.”
4. Take a big swing.
In addition to selling product to customers, Branch and her sister got retail placement at a local thrift shop, but they knew they could serve more customers. One day, they walked into Ricky’s -- a gift and beauty store in New York -- and asked a stock boy who they could talk to about product. “He told us they have a product meeting in the store every Tuesday and to send them samples,” Branch says. “The next day they called us, and we were sold in 25 stores.”
The Ricky’s deal gave the women the push -- and the ability -- to move production out of their kitchen and into a designated space, and they eventually grew to a 5,000 square foot facility. They started outsourcing production, so they could focus on marketing and product development. “And thank God we did,” Branch says. “Because in 2010, Target called.” Their operation was already set up to scale, and they launched in 250 Target locations across the country, and have continually expanded their reach with the retailer.
6. Don’t fix what isn’t broken.
Today, Miss Jessie’s sells 16 different products and is available in Target, Wal-Mart, Walgreens and CVS locations across the country. The owners still operate a salon -- albeit a larger one, in Manhattan’s Soho neighborhood. “The salon serves as our R&D,” Branch says. “We get real intel from the salon, and it helps us come up with product that the market really needs, especially as more and more brands launch in this space.”